ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Le Noise’ — Neil Young (Reprise)

Neil Young with Daniel Lanois. Bring on "Le Noise." Photo: AP.

Neil Young has never been known not to follow his muse, for better and worse. Sometimes all in the breadth of the same album.

His longtime fans probably live by the same unofficial credo as the radio station to which I’ve belonged (albeit remotely these days) since 1991, WPKN  (89.5 FM, wpkn.org) in Bridgeport, Ct.: Some songs I like. Some songs I don’t like.

And chances are his listeners are following those very same words again.

His latest album — his 51st, counting his box set and a greatest-hits disc — appeared with little fanfare a short while back. The title, “Le Noise,” is a play on the mispronunciation of the name of his producer, Daniel Lanois, but it’s also a sly way of summing up this solo collection: It’s noise, all right, but as the Frenchiness of the title implies, it’s refined noise. Sometimes greatly, sometimes just barely. Mostly for better, a little for worse.

The two opening tunes — that’s a quarter of the album, kids — were enough to make this listener run away for a few days before coming back around. When I decided to return, to approach the album with fresh ear, the first two cuts still sounded like crap, but the remaining six made for repeated listening.

“Walk With Me” makes 4 1/2 minutes seem like 41 1/2. It’s just a sludgy, fuzzed-out power chord, brutal primitivism repeated over a set of overly simplistic lyrics (“I feel your love/I feel your strong love/I feel your strength/I feel your faith in me.”), with Lanois, master of the ethereal, adding some spaciness to the overall sound near the end.

Young puts a little more effort into the lyrics on “Sign of Love,” but the melody is just as primitive — essentially relying on the constant hammering of the same three notes with a smattering of variation here and there, with Lanois soothing the effect to a slight degree.

From there, the album really starts. From here, you get the sense that there’s something heartfelt and autobiographical and revelatory going on. And it’s compelling.

“Someone’s Gonna Rescue You” also relies on a relentless attack of several heavily distorted notes, but its message of hope (“Someone’s gonna rescue you before you fall”) is enveloped in a dreamy soundscape that makes it come off as a message sent from the angels.

On “Angry World,” Young and Lanois skillfully mix repetitious distortion with an otherworldly swirl and voices that seem to say “love” and “hate me,” as it addresses how the atmosphere around us is, indeed, angry, both “for the businessman and the fisherman.” And you can’t tell whether he’s being sarcastic or gazing with the wisdom of someone who’s seen a few angry generations when he says “and everything is gonna be all right.”

“Rumblin'” takes the same unearthly swirl in another direction — an ominous atmosphere with an equal dose of uncertainty, the guitar providing, true to the nature of the song, an aural tremor and a sense of foreboding and even fear.

Young breaks out a Spanish-accented acoustic strum for “Love and War,” where he addresses the conflict, the ambivalence, he’s felt over the years singing about both subjects (“When I sing about love and war, I don’t really know what I’m saying”) — about the several times he’s “hit a bad chord” but still carries on with his songs. It comes damn near being a confessional, as if he’s questioning a piece of his career — one piece, mind you, but a decent-sized one.

Another acoustic tune, the gently delivered, 7-minute “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” — like “Pocahontas” and “Cortez the Killer” before it — uses the incursion of the white man and the march of history to set up a frightening modern-day scenario — in this case, the poisoning of the soil (in the form of the toxins left in the California soil after the mines were tapped) and the seemingly unstoppable march of global warming. The sweetly-plucked guitar, with little embellishment save for a slight bit of echo, lulls and seduces the listener sweetly while laying out a message of despair, as he asks, “Who’ll be the one to lead the nations/and protect God’s creations?”

The album’s centerpiece, by far, is the confessional “Hitchhiker.” The guitar is loud, throbbing, droning, heavily distorted, like an acid trip gone bad — the perfect tone as Young takes us for a ride through the past, darkly — namely, his drug odysseys, from Toronto to California, in the ’60s and ’70s. No acid, but plenty of hash, speed, Valium, cocaine, and the ensuing feelings of paranoia and superhuman superiority, and as he nears the end of his trip — he turned 65 Nov. 12 — he wonders aloud, “I don’t know how I’m standing here,” as he gives thanks for his children and his wife.

If you can make it past the first couple of songs, you’ll find a strong album, one in which Young revisits several facets of his life and career and doesn’t spare himself. It’s a wonder the two men hadn’t worked together until now — Lanois with his atmospheric production, Young with his sometimes-breathy and heavenly vocals — but that artistic oversight has finally been rectified, and, for the most part, happily so.

If you have or know of an album (in CD form) that should be reviewed, contact me at franoramaworld@gmail.com. For disclosure’s sake: I bought this one.

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One Response to “ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Le Noise’ — Neil Young (Reprise)”

  1. Kathy Says:

    Did anyone see Jimmy Fallon as Neil Young with Bruce Springsteen on his show? so funny http://stereogum.com/577951/bruce-springsteen-jimmy-fallon-as-neil-young-cover-whip-my-hair-in-a-manner-suitable-for-old-men-with-bad-alignment/video/

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